BIRDING AROUND THE WORLD

Subtitle

Prince Edward Island and the Antarctic Pack-ice 1st November - 17th November 2002

I did not write anything up on this unique trip in which I was privileged to participate. I present here the two best reports on the trip, in my opinion, with their authors’ consent – the first by Graeme Wallace and the second by Ian Merrill.

Graeme Wallace, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Background and Summary of the trip

The purpose of the trip, which had never been previously undertaken, was to see as many Southern Ocean seabirds as possible on a route plying from Cape Town through the Indian Ocean, by way of Prince Edward and Marion Islands, to the Antarctic pack ice, returning to Cape Town through the Atlantic Ocean.

The trip was an outstanding success recording 66 bird species and 17 mammals. It was however much more than that; a never to be forgotten odyssey through the spectacular and raging southern oceans, fantastic seascapes, breathtaking icebergs, the desolate beauty and stillness of the pack ice and a pristine environment that man has not yet diminished.

From the largest, the soaring Wandering Albatross, to the smallest, the Grey-rumped Storm Petrel, to the world's most southerly breeding bird the exquisite Snow Petrel, the rarely seen Lesser Sheathbill and the daddy of them all the Emperor Penguin, this pioneering pelagic delivered a wonderful range of bird species.

 

As everyone understood, this was never intended to be a luxury cruise as the ship chartered for the voyage was a 20 year old South African supply vessel, the SA Agulhas, which had never previously been used to cater for paying passengers. On this occasion however the ship played host to 80 expectant birders including many of the world list heavy hitters. In the event the ship's company did a great job, using all their seamanship to manoeuvre the vessel as close to the birds as possible and serving good quality meals in some terrible sea conditions. Accommodation on the ship was adequate, food and drink well above expectations and the potential boredom of 17 days at sea relieved by high quality presentations on a variety of wildlife and historical topics and a number of social events.

The trip was originally conceived by Ian Sinclair and was managed and delivered by Birding Africa and Cape Town Pelagics. Both organisations did a great job from handling all the pre-trip communications and planning to the daily running of the trip itself. The quality of the trip was underscored by the presence of most of South Africa's leading bird and pelagic guides led by Peter Ryan whose knowledge of all things Antarctic seemed boundless.

The "official record" of the trip by Peter Ryan can be found at http://www.capetownpelagics.com/ This trip report sets out personal recollections of the trip based upon my daily diary together with a few photographs that I hope will convey some of the magic of the trip.

Reference Sources

Hadoram Shirihai's guide to Antarctic wildlife provided comprehensive, if somewhat pricey, coverage of all the birds and marine mammals likely to be encountered on the trip. The recently published 3rd edition SASOL Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa covered the majority of the birds.

A great deal of information on seabird conservation, pelagic birding and whale watching in and around South Africa can be bound at http://www.capetownpelagics.com/

Daily Account

Ship's position is given as at mid-day.

Friday 1 November 2002 Ships Position 33°55 S 18°27 E Cape Town

Arrived at Berth 500 in Cape Town Harbour with Clide Carter and Chris Lodge with a keen sense of expectation and a degree of foreboding about the 17 day trip bound for Prince Edward and Marion Islands and on to the pack ice of Antarctica passing through some of the roughest oceans in the world (the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties were to live up to their reputation!). However the potential birdlist, experience of polar seas and pack-ice was more than enough to quell any lingering concern. Once at the quayside the bright red SA Agulhas, a South African research and supply vessel of some 6000 tonnes looked at once both imposing and re-assuring in the dock.

Checked in early, dropped the bags in a small but adequate 4 berth inside cabin and went ashore to pick up some last minute warm clothing. Returned to the ship well in advance of the scheduled 14.00 departure and spent some time becoming familiar with the layout of the ship, its several decks, confusing passageways and hard metallic edges.

Departure delayed while the trip organisers negotiated with immigration officials to allow a British passenger on board who had lost his passport. The passenger was finally denied embarkation, apparently despite assurances from the British Consul. This decision seemed harsh in the extreme given that we would not land anywhere and must have been a hammer blow to the birder.

Finally around 15.00 a tug pulled us from our mooring, engines growled into life and we headed out of the harbour. No turning back now! A pod of Dusky Dolphins at the harbour entrance were a great start and in calm waters we progressed along the coast of South Africa towards Cape Point seeing some of the commoner coastal species: Cape Gull, Cape Gannet, Sooty Shearwater, and African Penguin.

Shortly our first real pelagic species were to appear: Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatross as well as the White-chinned Petrel with which we would become so familiar during the coming days. Finally we passed from dusk into darkness, the beacon from the fabled Cape of Good Hope lighthouse clearly visible on a calm evening. An "icebreaker" followed a surprisingly good dinner offering a chance to meet guides and fellow passengers over a couple of beers on the heli-deck. Shortly after retiring discovered we had one of the world's foremost snorers in our cabin!

Saturday 2 November 2002 Ships Position 36°21 S 21°19 E

Woke at 03.00 and finally up at 05.30 with the ship's computer indicating a position some 40 miles south of Cape Agulhas. Up on the heli-deck the weather was sunny and calm with something of a swell. A couple of Southern Fulmars were a surprise this far north (still in South African coastal waters); these were followed around 09.00 by the first of several Great Shearwater, a couple of Manx Shearwater, the first Black-browed Albatross, Cape Petrel and Northern Giant Petrel. Cape Fur Seals were seen and the blow of a distant Hump-backed Whale was a new experience. (Experienced observers can tell the species of whale by its 'blow-pattern' and the 'footprint' it leaves as it submerges.)

The mid morning lifeboat drill, much advertised in advance, went smoothly but birding soon resumed with Indian and then Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross in evidence together with Southern Giant Petrel and, around 13.00, the first Black-bellied Storm Petrels appeared as we dropped off the continental shelf . Early afternoon saw us make a detour for a hake trawler, but this track was altered to allow us to circle a group of albatross resting on the calm water; but the bird that gave rise to most debate was a fly-by of a possible juvenile Salvin's Albatross (split from Shy by some authorities).

It seemed that the drop off the continental shelf into the warm waters of the Agulhas Current had resulted in a noticeable reduction in the number of birds but flying-fish were everywhere and in the late afternoon finally saw the peculiar sunfish. Great-winged Petrel seen in the late afternoon with the day drawing to a close in mist, rain, a noticeably heavy swell and poor views of a Soft-plumaged Petrel.

Sunday 3 November 2002 Ships Position 39°19 S 25°54 E

Slept badly in the pitching boat and on deck at 06.00 to greet an overcast but dry day. Now some 400 miles from Cape Town. By 11.00 a quiet morning had yielded our first Wandering Albatross, a juvenile, followed by Grey Petrel, Southern Giant Petrel and an Antarctic Prion which hung around the stern affording good views. Later in the day the prion numbers built up significantly, mainly Antarctic and possibly Slender-billed Prion but extremely difficult to separate as they skimmed in and around the fleck-capped seas. White-headed Petrels appeared in the late afternoon but deteriorating weather brought the days birding to a close around 17.30. The ship crossed into the roaring forties around 19.00.

Monday 4 November 2002 Ships Position 41°31 S 29°27 E

The roaring forties did not take long to live up to their reputation and awakened at 05.00 by the pitching and rolling of the ship. Outside, the lower deck was awash with water as the seas broke continuously over the sides of the ship. Spent much of the morning on the heli-deck watching the stern of the boat almost disappear beneath the sea as the ship would crest then slide down the back of mountainous swells of water created by the ever increasing storm force winds. The weather continued to deteriorated first to Force 8 deepening to Force 10 touching 11 as the seas grew to 30 - 35 feet swells. One passenger on the poop deck was extremely fortunate not to get washed off the back of the ship along with his camera equipment as a wall of water knocked him flat.

The seascapes however were truly spectacular; the endless grey panorama broken up by massive swells and troughs coloured ice blue and turquoise and capped with white foam as the 50 knot wind whipped across their tops. Against instructions ventured up to the monkey bridge high above the bow to watch the seas breaking over the ship but beat a hasty retreat as flecks of spray at 60 mph feel more like shotgun pellets. Watched the spectacle for a while from the relative safety of the bridge. Birding was almost impossible but persistence rewarded by a Southern Royal Albatross which joined the numerous Wanderers in their effortless and stately flight across the ship's wake. The ship's speed had slowed to just 6 knots.

Tuesday 5 November 2002 Ships Position 43°08 S 33°06 E

Dreadful night with little sleep as the boat pitched and rolled its way through the stormy night. Back on deck at 07.30 the seas were calmer and the storm force wind continued to abate as the day progressed. We were now 8 hours behind schedule and would not arrive at Marion Island until late instead of early Wednesday. We had now crossed the sub-tropical convergence and the temperature was noticeable lower.

Spent virtually the entire day birding from the heli-deck but in a short period below deck managed to miss the only Northern Royal Albatross of the trip. Nevertheless a great days birding revealed 9 species of albatross with Grey-headed and the beautiful Light-mantled Sooty Albatross appearing for the first time. Other new species included Blue Petrel, probable Salvin's Prion and Diving Petrel for some. On the mammal front Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals were seen and those on the monkey bridge also had Hump-backed Whale.

Wednesday 6 November 2002 Ships Position 46°03 S 36°50 E

After a great nights sleep awoke at 06.00 to a bright, sunny and relatively calm day. A number of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross kept close order with the ship affording fantastic views of their subtle plumage and partial white eye ring that gives them such an 'intelligent' or 'quizzical' appearance. Finally getting to grips with Salvin's Prion, Soft-plumaged and Blue Petrel but failed miserably all morning to get a good view of the world's smallest pelagic bird, the tiny Grey-rumped Petrel which fluttered in and out of the ships wake.

Late morning ventured forward to the bow where Fairy Prion was being seen and with time the broad black tip to the tail made at least this prion identifiable. Good views were also obtained of diving petrels; tiny little whirring things like miniature brown clockwork puffins, one minute flitting across the waves and gone the next as they dived head first into the swell. They were dwarfed by the seas around them and how they survive is a matter of wonder.

After lunch got on to a tiny grey/brown martin like bird with a paler grey rump - Grey-rumped Storm Petrel at last. The weather deteriorated significantly, overcast with rain and wind rising to Force 9 and by the time we arrived off Marion Island at 17.00 conditions were awful.

As the ship edged into the channel, Marion Island began to emerge from the billowing mist, allowing first sightings of a distant King Penguin colony and closer views of the attractive and endemic Crozet Shag (split from Imperial Shag) as it flew by the boat. Soon after however in deteriorating visibility and a whipping wind the day came to a close. We would spend the night steaming slowly up and down the coast of Marion Island sheltered from the wind between East Cape and Kidalkey. As many birds, particularly prions, are attracted to light cabin curtains over all portholes were covered to prevent the birds, particularly prions, from flying into the ship, injuring or killing themselves.

Thursday 7 November 2002 Ships Position 46°39 S 38°01 E

After a sound but very short night's sleep arose at 02.00 and headed for the heli-deck where spotlighting was scheduled in order to get to grips with the complex identification of prions and diving petrels by examining birds in the hand. How such spotlighting differs from having birds fly into lit portholes I do not know and indeed will never know because the guide elected to lead this turned up 40 minutes late and the half hearted attempt was abandoned shortly thereafter. Went back to bed and got up again at 04.00 in light winds but overcast drizzling rain which meant poor visibility of land as we steamed along the shoreline towards Archway King Penguin colony. However, attention quickly turned from the land to the sea as a large pod of Killer Whales swam close by the ship, clearly visible beneath the clear water, even more so when one surfaced only metres from the boat. Stellar!

Gradually, the light improved and the rain lessened, greatly improving the visibility. Several of the highly restricted Kerguelen Tern were seen feeding offshore in the kelp beds but more importantly the white blobs on land and along the beach gradually resolved into excellent scope views of the scavenging and much wanted endemic Lesser Sheathbill, one of only two species in the family Chionididae. King Penguin could be seen in numbers, sharing the beach with huge Southern Elephant Seals and the marauding Sheathbills; braying Gentoo Penguins along the middle slopes and in between small groups of Rockhopper and Macaroni Penguins proved difficult to separate in the still grey light. Eventually the distinctive red-gape of the Macaroni enabled identification. Both King and Gentoo Penguins could also be seen in the sea close to the ship and the scene was completed by Light-mantled Sooty Albatross on the cliffs and a few Wandering Albatross chicks on the grassy slopes looking very forlorn as they sat out the last days of their ten month lonely fledging vigil before being able to take off to soar the southern oceans.

We had not been granted permission to land on Marion and if the example that followed of landing one researcher was anything to go by its probably just as well that no attempt was made to land and bring back 80 birders. However despite the heavy swell and the zodiac engine cutting out halfway to shore the researcher was landed safely at the base. Zodiacs returned, were hauled up and secured and we began to steam to Prince Edward Island 20km to the north.

Arriving in still murky weather, the uninhabited Prince Edward Island was much more dramatic than its low lying sister Marion with steep rocky escarpments plunging to the sea and deeply etched grassy valleys inland. The captain backed the ship into a bay allowing somewhat closer views of Macaroni and Rockhopper Penguin colonies before steaming around the north of the island, stopping briefly off Albatross Valley, the breeding site of more than 10,000 pairs of albatross, where a few more sitting Wanderer chicks were just visible in the gloomy light.

Chumming at this point proved less successful than hoped for as around 150 Giant Petrels swarmed to the stern to feed greedily, crowding out the other species. Leaving the craggy stacks of Prince Edward Island behind we headed south again to Marion Island slowly passing the King and Macaroni Penguin colony at Kildalkey where around 450,000 breeding pairs are to be found on the hillsides. Close views of five Macaroni Penguins that swam around the ship together with several Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals completed a great days birding around 17.30.

Friday 8 November 2002 Ships Position 48°47 S 34°15 E

The morning air was colder and soon discovered that we had crossed the Antarctic convergence in the night and were now in much colder water about 100 miles south west of Marion Island. The next target was to get to the edge of the pack ice at 54S still some 550 or so nautical miles away. Birds were fewer but included White-headed and Blue Petrels and Salvin's, Antarctic and Fairy Prions but numbers of Kerguelen Petrel proved the main diversion as did possible South Georgian Diving Petrels, although the jury seems to be divided on whether you can identify them from the Common Diving Petrel without first examining their nasal secretions or is it their whiter underwings...? Mid-afternoon the first iceberg was sighted on the horizon and proved a memorable sight for those like me who had not seen one before but this and the increasingly whipping wind was a mere foretaste of what lay ahead.

Saturday 9 November 2002 Ships Position 50°08 S 30°41 E

A very rough night with little sleep; disturbed particularly around midnight as the ship tried to change course and then had to turn back again. Instead of heading south we had sailed some way west to reduce the rolling and were now headed south west in a described arc which was delaying our progress. Rumours abounded of estimated arrival/non arrival times at the pack ice but the short of it seemed to be that we would reach the northern limits of the ice on Monday night but would have to leave by Tuesday lunchtime. This was bad news indeed and the elation of Marion dissipated into a slough of despond. Brighter news at the evening briefing as the captain explained that the forecast had improved and we should now reach the pack ice by Sunday evening.

Sunday 10 November 2002 Ships Position 53°04 S 26°44 E

Slept in and missed the 06.30 first Antarctic Petrel. On deck, although it was snowing heavily, the seas were much calmer with the ship doing 11 knots, twice the speed of the previous day. Excellent views of Kerguelen Petrel, Slender-billed Prions put on a good show and the only white-phase Southern Giant Petrel of the trip joined us for a while. The snow gradually subsided and shortly before lunch a second Antarctic Petrel appeared giving good looks for all - a handsome bird indeed. As we progressed southward it grew chillier by the hour and suddenly we were joined by the first Snow Petrels; four birds which fluttered round the ship for some time before flying off. This was one of the great highlights of my trip partly because they are stunning little white birds with coal black eyes and bill but mainly because as they breed on continental Antarctic I was seeing the world's most southerly breeding bird.

 

Icebergs began to appear off the bow of the ship in late afternoon and the captain changed course heading for one 19 miles away. As we sailed towards the iceberg it became apparent that it was of titanic proportions and as we drew closer its mass totally dominated the ship. It was a truly breathtaking sight of pure white crystalline ice with a cracked and broken pattern caused by horizontal fractures of pale blue ice and even deeper vertical fissures of deep blue. As the viscous blue sea broke and retreated over the base of the berg every colour of blue and grey seemed to be revealed. By now we had been joined by many Cape, Blue, Snow and Antarctic Petrels flying all around together with Chinstrap Penguins in the water. The berg itself proved to be home to some 1600 Chinstraps clinging to its icy lower slopes. Later that evening as the sun was setting we finally entered the pack ice but turning for one final look before dusk revealed the last rays of the sun casting a faint rosy pink glow on the top corner of the iceberg before it was quickly extinguished and replaced by a deep purple sky. It was truly a magical few hours that will live in the memory for a very long time.

Monday 11 November 2002 Ships Position 53°07 S 22°58 E

Armistice Day brought a pre-dawn start at 03.00 which was far too early as it was still dark but well worth it as Peter Ryan notes in his report "to find the ship steaming through bands of drift ice interspersed by smoky patches of semi-frozen, glassy sea and a glimmer of golden dawn on the south-west horizon" The ship sailed quietly through the still air, the silence broken only by the sound of cracking pack ice as we passed through. It was a beautiful sight.

As the sun rose higher everyone began to look eagerly for the remaining pack ice specialists, Adelie and Emperor penguins, or XXL as the latter had become colloquially known. Emperor Penguins breed much further south on the highly inaccessible Antarctic continent but our guides were guessing that some might be found at the edge of the pack ice. No one had been down here this time of year, so no-one really knew what to expect and the air crackled with expectation. At the bow there were a number of false alarms but an Antarctic Minke Whale cruising slowly past the bow just beneath the crystal clear water was a great sight.

As we progressed through the ice some of the floes would flip over as the boat nudged them revealing the yellow and green stained underside of algal growth that provides a food source for the swarming Antarctic krill that in turn supports the food chain for many Antarctic creatures. After 4 hours on deck and despite heading through thickening ice neither Penguin had been sighted, time was running short as we had to leave the ice that afternoon and it was a quiet company that trooped off for breakfast.

The quiet was shattered midway through breakfast as Ian Sinclair appeared at the dining saloon door yelling "Emperor !!" I thought I was quick off the mark but at least 30 others were before me as we raced upstairs and out on to the deck; too late however to see the penguin which had apparently dived off its icy perch. Scanned the ice for a while before returning in somewhat dejected fashion to the saloon to congealed fried eggs. The nightmare scenario was now upon us where some had seen the Emperor but many had not and this might be the only bird. Such thoughts were banished almost immediately however when there was a second cry of Emperor! Racing upstairs and then to the bow we saw the unmistakable bulky figure of an Emperor Penguin swimming just off the bow. It was an immature bird which swam around for 10 minutes, diving occasionally before diving and disappearing for the last time. However the key bird of the trip had been well seen leaving only one last penguin species - the Adelie.

Shortly after lunch up on the monkey bridge I watched as Peter Ryan sighted 2 penguins on an ice floe at least 800 metres away and radioed the bridge to say that he thought he had 2 Adelie Penguins. The captain changed course and slowly inched the 6000ton ship through the ice until scope views showed clearly these were indeed two Adelie Penguin - the last penguin of the trip. As we inched ever closer and circled around them the penguins looked bemused, not sure what to do and I did wonder what they made of the great red ship towering above. I also marvelled at the skill of the guide to call the bird so far away and of the ship's crew for getting us so close.

Crab-eater Seals were seen and later, as a wide mouthed reptilian Leopard Seal was sighted lounging on an ice floe, the snow began to fall in earnest blanketing the sky and covering the ship. To their eternal credit the crew prepared a memorable braii on the heli-deck in the middle of the snowstorm in sub zero temperatures and a great party ensued. Before retiring I did however take 5 minutes towards the bow of the ship away from the party to enjoy the solitude, to look over the frozen waste and reflect upon how fortunate we had been to enjoy such an environment and its wildlife.

Tuesday 12 November 2002 Ships Position 52°49 S 21°25 E

Slept well, earplugs helping to screen out the worst of the snoring of one of my cabin companions, and was back on deck at 07.00 to heavy seas and a howling wind. Although still in Antarctica, the ice and Snow Petrels were gone but it had been magical while it lasted. Strap-toothed Whale off the bow provided reward for early risers but as the day wore on the wind increased again to Force 9 and many spent the day relaxing, chatting and catching up on diaries so little to report on the birding front except the now familiar Kerguelen, Blue and Cape Petrels and the odd Wandering Albatross. As the day progressed the weather became foul with Force 11 winds gusting 12, waves crashed over the heli-deck and to keep us upright the captain had to turn the ship directly into the westerly wind rather than follow the northerly course that would take us to Cape Town.

Wednesday 13 November 2002 Ships Position 51°28 S 19°01 E

A dreadful night of little sleep, the ship pitching violently as the captain tried to veer north but was forced back on to the westerly course to avoid the ship rolling over. Despite steaming all night, by morning we were actually further south than when we began. A rough morning followed enlivened by all the plates and crockery being thrown off the dining tables before the ship turned north east, back on track for Cape Town taking advantage of the SE wind. Few birds seen.

Thursday 14 November 2002 Ships Position 46°57 S 17°31 E

A much better night passed into a clear mild morning with the ship still making good speed. 4 species of albatross before breakfast with particularly good views throughout the day of Black-browed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. Later a Northern Royal Albatross that did not look quite right was confirmed as Northern by two of the guides (meaning that I had finally caught up on this tricky species) only to have them subsequently change their minds (following much debate) to immature Southern, a fact subsequently confirmed by the wonders of digital photography which showed the bird to have a black cutting edge diagnostic of this species. Hmm?? The Jock's Lodge team of the Buck Boys, Hornbuckle and Wallace came a creditable 3rd in the quiz that night.

Friday 15 November 2002 Ships Position 42°43 S 17°38 E

Another wild night tossed us around our bunks and slowed progress still further. Estimated arrival in Cape Town had now gone back to the morning of Monday 18th causing consternation and a frenzy of flight rebooking by those bold enough to have booked a Sunday night flight. As I was staying in South Africa for another 5 weeks it would only be mildly inconvenient but by now there was a sense that everyone was beginning to tire of the bad weather and wished to be back in Cape Town. Still, the day slowly improved and the realisation that I would probably not be back this way again generated renewed interest in a nice mix of birds including Southern Royal, Shy, Grey-headed and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Great-winged, Grey and Blue Petrels and Black-bellied Storm Petrels. A fascinating lecture on the Tristan Group followed by a fun "awards ceremony" led into celebration of my and another fellow travellers birthdays which lasted well into the night.

Saturday 16 November 2002 Ships Position 39°25 S 15°56 E

The weather had not yet relented but, after another rolling night, the morning found us in calmer waters, the day warming up considerably as we headed home. Several Atlantic Petrels were the highlight and the day culminated in an excellent Landfall Dinner immaculately prepared by the galley staff who, it should be recorded, had provided us with 3 good meals a day even in the most appalling of conditions. The consumption of large amounts of wine at dinner was exceeded only by the consumption after dinner in excellent and buoyant company. Very late to bed but not sure at what time.

Sunday 17 November 2002 Ships Position 34°56 S 18°03 E

A late start, barely in time for breakfast, saw calm seas and sunny skies with about 150 miles to Cape Town. Numbers of Great-winged Petrels drifted and as the morning progressed several individual and a small groups of Leach's Petrels were seen. After lunch on deck we passed through the fishing grounds off South Africa with a number of boats of various sizes at work. Their activities increased the bird numbers and variety with reasonable numbers of Black-browed and Shy Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels, Great and Cory's Shearwaters being seen, for once, in flat calm sunny conditions. We were now well on schedule to dock mid-afternoon but fate held yet one further twist. A large oil rig being manoeuvred into port had blocked the entrance channel and there were now a number of ships awaiting pilot boats to escort them in. We were in a queue and now seemed destined to spend yet another night on the ship. As we cruised slowly up the coast of Africa a large flock of Sabine's Gulls offered some distraction and 3 or 4 Humpbacked Whale were also seen well. Then good news - a pilot boat was available and as we headed for home on our final run in Dusky and Common Dolphin gave nice views. A memorable journey concluded at 18.00 when we docked at Cape Town, only 6 hours behind schedule which given the weather and the vagaries of the southern ocean was nothing short of remarkable.

Sunday 17 November 2002 Ships Position 33°51 S 18°20 E Cape Town

18.00 docked at Cape Town with Speckled Pigeon on the guard rail the final bird of the trip. It had been quite a journey.

Bird Species List:

King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
Seen in small groups of 100-200 birds on the beach and around Marion Is. early on7/11 and later that day seen from a distance in hundreds of thousands at Kildalkey, also on Marion Is.

Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
One immature bird seen in the pack ice at latitude 55S. on 11/11. Nevertheless a remarkable find.

Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscellus papua)
A few birds in the water as we arrived off Marion Is. on 7/11 with small groups of c 50 birds along the lower slopes the following morning.

Adelie Penguin (Pygoscellus adeliae)
Scope views of 2 birds seen in the pack ice on11/11.

Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscellus antarctica)
Surprisingly large numbers of birds in the pack ice each day from 10-12/11 with 1600 on the iceberg on10/11.

Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)
Seen in their hundreds at their colonies in Marion and Prince Edward Is on7/11.

Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus)
Seen in their hundreds at their colonies in Marion and Prince Edward Is on7/11 an later the same day seen from a distance in hundreds of thousands at Kildalkey.

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)
Seen in small numbers in South African coastal waters on the first and last days of the trip

Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans)
After leaving SA coastal waters on 2/11 this inveterate ship follower seen daily thereafter in good numbers except while in the pack ice.

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
Throughout the trip I cursed missing this bird while below deck on 5/11. However the "official trip report" on Cape Town Pelagics website does not list this bird as being seen on 5/11 nor any other day for that matter with only a couple of "possible sightings" apparently on 8&9/11. Either way I never saw it.

Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Mainly single birds only seen away from coastal waters over the ocean except and not in the pack ice.

Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta)
See daily during the first five days of the trip and then in good numbers on the final day.

Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini)
One possible juvenile bird seen on 2/11 but not positively identified.

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris)
Seen regularly throughout the trip except while in the pack ice.

Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos)
Seen daily sometimes in good numbers in oceanic waters outside of the pack ice.

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche carteri)
Seen daily in good numbers throughout the Indian Ocean sector to Marion Is. but not thereafter.

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos)
Seen in low numbers on the sector down to Marion Is. and again on the last 3 days.

Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus)
Common throughout.

Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli)
Common throughout.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata)
Possibly the bird of the trip this beautiful albatross had a more southerly distribution than its Dark cousin with particularly great views as several birds kept close order with the ship on 14/11.

Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca)
Seen daily away from coastal waters and outside the pack ice with up to ten birds in a day.

White-chinned Petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis)
One on the commonest petrels.

Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus)
Not uncommon in the more northerly and coastal waters.

Great-winged Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera)
Seen almost daily in the waters north of 56S.

Kerguelen Petrel (Aphodroma brevirostris)
Seen regularly in the waters south of Marion even down to the edge of the pack ice.

Grey-Petrel (Procellaria cinerea)
Seen irregularly in very small numbers away from coastal waters and outside the pack ice.

Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)
Seen only on 4 days either in or on the edge of SA coastal waters.

Corys Shearwater (Calonaectris diomedia)
15-20 birds seen on the final day.

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus)
Only 2 birds on 2/11.

Little Shearwater (Puffinus assimilis)
Seen regularly in small numbers on the Indian Ocean sector down to Marion Is.

Antarctic Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides)
Seen almost daily outside coastal waters except for a surprise pair on the second day.

Antarctic Petrel (Thalassoicia antarctica)
Only on 2 days in and around the pack ice where seen in surprisingly good numbers.

Pintado Petrel (Daption capense)
Common throughout.

Atlantic Petrel (Pterodroma incerta)
Uncommon with only a few birds seen on 16/11.

White-headed Petrel (Pterodroma lessonii)
Seen regularly outside coastal waters and the pack ice.

Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis)
Seen almost daily except in the pack ice, sometimes in good numbers.

Antarctic Prion (Pachyptila desolata)
A few birds seen early in the trip on the leg don to Marion Is. but many more seen south of Marion, in the pack ice and on the Atlantic sector with the last seen on 16/11.

Blue Petrel (Halobaena cearulea)
Common from Marion Is. south into the pack ice and in the Atlantic - last seen 15/11

Salvin's Prion (Pachyptila salvini)
Seen in large numbers in the Indian Ocean to the start of the South Polar Sea.

Slender-billed Prion (Pachyptila belcheri)
Uncommon and only seen in very small numbers on 10 &13/11.

Fairy Prion (Pachyptila turtur)
Only seen in any numbers in and around Marion Is.

Leach's Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)
Only seen on the final day when a few singles and the odd small group seen off the coast of SA.

Black-bellied Storm Petrel (Fregatta tropica)
Common throughout the trip except in coastal waters and the pack ice.

Common Diving-Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix)
A few birds seen north of Marion Is. on 5/11 with more around the approaches to Marion on 6/11.

South Georgian Diving-Petrel (Pelecanoides georgicus)
Possibly also seen around Marion Is. and more probably south of Marion Is. on 8/11.

Cape Gannet (Moris capensis)
Common around the coastal waters off SA.

Bank Cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus)
A very few birds seen on the final run in to Cape Town on 17/11.

Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis)
Good numbers seen in coastal waters on the first and last days of the trip.

Crozet Shag (Phalacrocorax melanogenis)
This handsome endemic seen in small numbers only around Marion Is. on 5&6/11

Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicaria)
A flock presumed to be this species flew past on the final run in to Cape Town on 17/11.

Sub-Antarctic Skua (Catharacta antarctica)
Seen daily on the Indian Ocean leg as far south as Marion Is. but never thereafter

Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus)
One or 2 birds on 2/11.

Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius longicaudus)
A few birds seen during the last 3 days of the trip.

Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus)
A few birds off the coast of SA and at Marion Is.

Sabine's Gull (Larus sabini)
A few birds seen on 01&02/11 but hundreds on the final run in to Cape Town on 17/11.

Hartlaub's Gull (Larus hartlaubii)
A few seen as we departed Cape Town on01/11.

Swift Tern (Sterna bergii)
Small numbers in coastal waters off SA on the first and last day of the voyage.

Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)
Small numbers seen on the final run in to Cape Town ob 17/11.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
Apparently seen as we left Cape Town Harbour.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)
See regularly throughout the trip

Antarctic Tern (Sterna vittata)
A very few birds seen off Marion Is. on 6/11

Kerguelen Tern (Sterna virgata)
Small numbers seen feeding in the kelp beds off Marion Is. on 6/11.

Mammal Species List:

This list represents all the mammals seen on the trip. Only those with asterisks were seen by me and if there was any disappointment on the trip it was perhaps the lack of good views of cetaceans - perhaps the wild weather was a factor??

Cape Fur Seal*
Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal*
Antarctic Fur Seal*
Southern Elephant Seal*
Leopard Seal*
Antarctic Minke Whale*
Dwarf Minke Whale
Fin Whale
Humpback Whale*
Risso's Dolphin
Dusky Dolphin*
Common Dolphin*
Killer Whale*
Sperm Whale
Southern Bottle-nosed Whale
Strap-toothed Beaked Whale

Ian Merrill, Leicestershire

Wednesday 30th October 

Birmingham to Cape Town by air; not an amazingly difficult proposition in the Twenty-First Century? We have a boat to catch in Cape Town, which we can’t afford to miss. The next one doesn’t sail for six months and with this in mind we have allowed a good twenty-four hour safety cushion into our travel itinerary. By 18.00 hrs Martin Kennewell and I are enjoying a cold Amstel, with Dutch birding friend Volkert van der Willigen, in a pleasant little bar adjoining Schipol Airport. A couple of hours fly past, the long-haul departure time approaches and we arrive at the check-in desk.

“Sorry Sir, your flight has been cancelled. You have a room for the night in the Amsterdam Hilton”. Very frustrating, but no need to panic. We still have plenty of time on our side, though a late arrival will cut short our planned day of birding around Cape Town. This hardship is mitigated somewhat by the grand surroundings in the Hilton; there’s a man playing a grand piano as we walk into the lobby! 

A couple of laps of the fresh olive and Gouda counter and we’re off for a slightly uneasy sleep; our Cape Town safety margin has now been reduced to just twelve hours.

Thursday 31st October 

Up at 05.30 for our early flight.

“There is a fault with the air conditioning unit of your aircraft and we anticipate that boarding will be delayed until 09.00”

Stay calm. We still have plenty of time. At this point we find that we are not the only nervous English birders on the flight. Jon Hornbuckle susses our birding intentions by our attendant tripods and lenses, discovering that he is booked onto the same boat. We seek solace in numbers, in our heightening state of anxiety.

A sigh of relief greets our 09.45 take off. A daylight flight over Africa provides breathtaking views over the vast expanses of sand, dunes, jagged hills and wadis that form the never-ending Sahara Desert. We don’t have too long to enjoy ourselves, however, as the intercom breaks the dire news.

“Our late departure means that we have missed our connecting flight and you will be provided with overnight accommodation in Johannesburg”. This is starting to get serious! Pleas to the cabin crew regarding our plight and potentially disastrous boat missing scenario seem to fall on deaf ears and we have a very pensive journey down to Jo’berg. If we can’t get an earlier flight than the one offered by KLM we will miss the boat.

At Jo’berg we anchor ourselves to the KLM flight information counter and say a few prayers. There are limited seats on the early South African Airlines flight and when the operator announces that we are all confirmed on board we are ready to give him a kiss!

Friday 1st November 

Our early flight provides the first daylight views of the South African landscape. From thirty thousand feet all appears flat and very barren, with the dry farmland being occasionally broken by a dark volcanic rocky outcrop. We descend over Cape Town and huge houses, which dot the affluent green suburbs in the low hills to the east of the city, can clearly be seen. The wing dips and the vast dark anvil of Table Mountain slides into view, as a backdrop to the sprawling commercial heart of the city. It is a truly inspiring sight, making Cape Town probably the most instantly recognisable city in the World.

At ground level the social and economic situation is made immediately apparent, in the course of our short taxi ride to the port. Just west of the airport the squalid-looking Langa shantytown occupies a vast area. The tiny houses are little more than piles of timber and corrugated iron, strung together by a web-like tangle of power cables. 

This may not be a totally unfamiliar scene within the African continent, but it is put into an extraordinary context by the outlook a mere kilometre-or-so further down the road. Stretching away from the road is a pristine, lushly irrigated and beautifully manicured golf course. Smartly clad white golfers play a round in an idyllic sunny setting, whilst within the range of a good drive with a three wood are hundreds of their black countrymen struggling to find their next meal. Such are the everyday encounters in this madly imbalanced country.

Within a few minutes we are at the waterfront and port complex, sheltered within Table Bay. Quay 500 is our destination and the excitement mounts as we strain for our first view of the S.A. Agulhas, our home for the next seventeen days.

Way back in November 2001 we had heard about the S.A. Agulhas expedition to the Prince Edward Islands and Antarctic Pack-ice. The trip represented an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit a part of the globe that was normally considered out of bounds purely on the strength of the exorbitant costs that were levied on expeditions to such regions. 

The trip had been organised by the Cape Town based tour company Birding Africa (www.birding-africa.com). The S.A. Agulhas is operated by the South African Government to supply its Antarctic research stations and the Sub-Antarctic islands. This work is done during the Austral Summer and the boat was therefore chartered to make the pelagic birding trip during November, immediately before the official circuit of supply and support missions begin. Carried out on a none-profit-making basis, all proceeds from the trip are to be donated to research into the potentially catastrophic problems currently facing the World’s seabirds.

The S.A. Agulhas is a formidable vessel, designed specifically for use in some of the stormiest and most unpredictable oceans in the World. Built in 1977, she is 112 metres in length and clocks in with a gross weight of 6123 tonnes. Although not strictly an icebreaker, she is Class 1 ice-strengthened which means that she can cut through ice up to two metres deep if required.

Moored to the quayside she makes a very impressive sight and looks eminently seaworthy. At the stern of her bright red-painted hull is a large helideck, fore of which the white superstructure raises steeply to a height of seven stories. The area between bridge and bows is taken up by a series of spacious green-decked holds, above which the boom of a huge crane is secured. This piece of equipment is vital for the unloading of supplies at the unsophisticated staging posts on the Antarctic Ice Shelf and Sub-Antarctic islands. Mid-way up her superstructure is secured two sturdy-looking lifeboats; quite a relief with the entire potential iceberg encounters to come! A profusion of serious looking radio antennae and a huge blue penguin-logoed funnel, hopefully an omen for the next few weeks, top her.

Greatly relieved to have finally reached our destination before she sails, we make our way up the boarding gantry. We are shown to our cabins and are pleasantly surprised by the amount of room in our four-berth accommodation. This is obviously a working ship, not a luxury cruiser, but nevertheless all is quite comfortable. The reasons for the grab-rails in the shower cubicle will become apparent as we travel further south!

Having missed out on our planned days birding we are desperate to get a few ticks under the belt and set out on a quick tour of the harbour. Always fascinating places, we make our way between trawlers, cargo ships and yachts to find endemic Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls, Crowned and Cape Cormorants. Highlight, however, is a huge bull South African Fur Seal that proceeds to leave the water by means of a series of steps to deposit him in parking slot on the jetty car park. Here he rolls, scratches and sunbathes oblivious to passing vehicles and pedestrians.

Anona and Graham Finch, old friends and fellow Leicestershire birders, herald the arrival of other Antarctic bound travellers. They look equally pleased to have found the ship as their taxi whizzes past. Others drop in as the morning progresses and we realise that we really are amongst some esteemed birding company. There are no less that six ‘7000 listers’ on board: Jon Hornbuckle, Neil Bostock, Frank Lambert, Hugh Buck, Peter Kaestner and Phil Rostron. Between them they must surely have seen the vast majority of the bird species on the planet, yet if all goes well over the coming days each should be looking forward to a considerable ‘tick injection’. Such is the lure of a trip into these largely inaccessible and ornitholgically uncharted tracts of the Southern Ocean.

The ‘guides’ for the trip are an equally impressive assemblage of birding experience and expertise. Ian Sinclair, without doubt the World’s leading authority on African birds, author of numerous books and above all an extremely entertaining Northern Irish ex-pat, heads the list. Peter Ryan works as a seabird biologist. He is understandably a great authority on the natural history of the region and as we are to find out during many a long, cold evening a very accomplished lecturer on many an interesting topic. Rod Cassidy, professional bird guide, ‘beer monster’ and evening entertainer, Claire Spottiswood (author of the recently published ‘Essential Birding in Western South Africa’), Barrie Rose and Barry Watkins complete the line-up. 

In all there are 90 passengers and 35 crew aboard when we slip our moorings at 15.30 hours. Between us we have probably consumed every anti-seasickness remedy known to man. It’s a bright sunny afternoon and there is a real air of excitement and anticipation about the assembled crowd on the helideck. This really is a ground breaking expedition; no one has ever made an ornithological trip to our destination in the Southern Ocean at this time of year ever before.

We are still within the confines of the harbour walls when the first excitement ripples across the helideck. Small groups of African Penguins swim past the ship and a pod of Dusky Dolphins jump close to the quayside. The immense dark outline of Table Mountain is left in our wake and we turn south, past the Twelve Apostles, a series of dramatic craggy peaks, which lead us down the Cape Peninsular.

It takes some hours to pass the spectacular rocky landscape of The Peninsular and we take time to savour the sight; this will be the last land we will see for many a long day! The most adventurous nautical experience I’ve had before this one is the Fishgaurd to Rosslare ferry crossing, in the Irish Sea, and I can’t help but wonder how effective my seasickness tablets will be in the Southern Ocean.

As soon as we’re out of the harbour the seabirds start to appear, in the form of Cape Gannets, Swift Terns and Sabine’s Gulls. The former is strictly a bird of inshore waters; the latter is attracted to Cape Town’s large offshore sewage outfalls. To quote a seasoned pelagic birder’s phrase, ‘If you can see a gannet the sea is crap’! But then if you’ve never seen a Cape Gannet before, the scene has a rather different perspective.

As we leave behind the land, so we leave behind the sunshine. The weather takes on an overcast, grey and misty guise and the shorts are relegated to the rucksack for the rest of the voyage. Soon it’s time for our first trip to the galley and we are slightly alarmed to find that seats are wired to the floor and a two-inch plate-catching lip surrounds each table. So we really could be in for some rough weather, then?

The evening’s entertainment consists of a brief bit of socialising and a couple of beers (at 25 pence a can!), then an early retirement to the top bunk.

Saturday 2nd November 

The day begins with the first shower in a gently rocking boat. Quite tricky for the nautical novice and I am sure that things are going to get much worse. Being in an ‘economy class’ cabin with no windows one never knows what to expect of the weather, so it’s a relief to be greeted at the helideck by a sunny and cloudless day. It’s actually relatively calm and there is now no land to be seen. We are 38 miles south of Cape Agulhas, the most southerly headland on the African continent. It is also very exciting to find that the water is alive with birds. Pintado Petrels follow the wake, often hanging in the breeze at almost touching distance. These are wonderful little seabirds, with exquisitely chequered black-and-white upperparts.

Giant Petrels dwarf the Pintados as they vie for position in the wake. These albatross-sized birds are described in one field guide as ‘pugnacious, ungainly and uncouth scavengers’. This description may be appropriate around the Southern Ocean seabird and mammal colonies, but when gliding ably above the waves they are equally as accomplished flyers as any of the other open-water specialists pursuing the ship. Separating Northern from Southern Giant Petrels requires close views in good light. It is done merely on the colour of the bill tip, as variable brown plumage is consistent in both species. The bill tip of Northern Giant Petrel is reddish-brown, whereas that of Southern Giant Petrel is pale green. The geographical hint in the names of the pair seems to be a no relevance whatsoever, as they often nest virtually side-by-side on the same islands!

We are soon experts at splitting White-chinned Petrels (which rarely seem to display white chins) from the similarly dark brown Sooty Shearwaters, and it’s reassuring to see some North Atlantic familiarity in the shape of Great Shearwaters. Incredibly, the Great Shearwaters that are seen off the southwestern coasts of the U.K. could easily be these very birds, having completed their amazing circular tour of the Atlantic. After breeding on Tristan da Cunha and Gough, they set off northwest and along the American coast before turning east to cross the Atlantic. After spending the early autumn in the Northeast Atlantic they head south again to breed in the Austral Summer.

Petrels and shearwaters are fantastic birds in their own right, but without doubt the epitome of the Southern Ocean is the albatross. We are still some distance from the Southern Ocean and are in fact within the warm waters of the Agulhas Current, running through the shallows of the Agulhas Bank. The Agulhas Current runs in a southwesterly direction along the southern African coast, warming the entire region much as our own Gulf Stream. A number of species of albatross frequent this oceanic region, however, often drawn to trawlers and the chance of a free meal.

The first albatrosses we encounter are mollymawks. This is the ancient name used to describe the group of smaller albatrosses, all distinguished by virtue of their dark mantle (continuous with dark upperwings), and affectionately abbreviated to ‘mollies’. Mollymawk, sometimes also spelt mollymok, is a bastardisation of the Dutch word malmawk that translates as ‘mad duck’. Clearly the ancient mariners were somewhat bemused by the sight of these masters of the stormy southern oceans.

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses have long, slender wings and display a black border, of uniform width, to their white underwing. Shy Albatross, the other molly regularly seen in this region, is rather more bulky than the Yellow-nosed and noticeably paler above. It also exhibits a diagnostic dark ‘thumb print’ on the leading edge of the underwing, close to the body. Although ‘small’ by the standards of great albatrosses, the Shy Albatross still possesses a wingspan of impressive eight-and-a-half feet.

It’s great to see Little Shearwaters at close range. Their flight is fluttering and distinctive, but unlike North Atlantic birds they lack a distinctive white face. These are birds of the race elegans, with dark feathering extending down below the eye, and are a potential future split.

As we leave the continental shelf and head into deeper water so the cetacean activity increases. A pair of Humpback Whales blow and raise flukes off the starboard beam; one has to learn the nautical terminology rapidly or risk missing things! Soon afterwards a pod of Risso’s Dolphins surface to port. This species is one of the easiest dolphins to identify at sea, with its light grey colouration and strangely rounded forehead.

The ship’s alarm lets out a sudden, shrill blast and we are ordered to fetch our life jackets, don warm clothing and report to the numbered lifeboat muster stations on the helideck. The officers call a register and when all are accounted for we are ordered to make our way to the lifeboats. They are located mid-way up the ship’s superstructure, one on either side. It’s a fair climb up steep ladders and the hot, claustrophobic nature of the enclosed fibreglass boats comes as quite a shock. Sixty-two passengers and crew are crammed into each boat, shoulder-to-shoulder. We are extremely grateful that this is only an exercise and find it hard to imagine what it must be like to take to these craft in a real emergency. Let’s just hope that they spot all those icebergs in plenty of time.

Mid afternoon a trawler is spotted on the radar screen. This is some cause for excitement as trawlers in the Cape fishing grounds are renowned for attracting huge flocks of seabirds, in search of discarded fish scraps. We make our way towards its location and soon after it appears on the horizon large groups of seabirds materialise. Most are concentrated in small rafts on the sea at points where the trawler nets have been pulled on previous occasions. They have fed and are now digesting their last meal. 

Shouts of ‘storm petrel’ cause a sprint and dozens of eyes struggle to pick out a small bird low amongst the waves. Finally a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel gives itself up and we savour this excellent bird, larger than a European Storm Petrel and displaying a black stripe along the length of its white belly.

Our first Great-winged Petrel is picked out amongst a huge raft of Great Shearwaters, appearing superficially similar to a dark-billed version of a White-chinned Petrel. A small number of grey-headed Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses are picked out of the large numbers of Indian Yellow-noses before a dark-looking bird amongst a group of Shy Albatrosses causes an emergency U-turn of the ship. As we pass the group again it is picked out and identified as a young Salvin’s Albatross, a rare visitor to these waters.

Birds are not the only form of entertainment. Flying fish regularly break the surface and soar for many yards of stiff, outstretched pectoral fins. On our trip this species is restricted to the warm water of the Agulhas Current, as is the bizarre Sunfish, which floats just below the waters surface like a finned dustbin lid!

Following the trawler frenzy the rest of the day is strangely quiet, bird-wise. After dinner the first of many Soft-plumaged Petrels passes the ship, before the weather closes in with a heavy swell developing below a grey and drizzling sky. We retire indoors for an identification lecture in the helihanger. The swell is increasing noticeably and mid-way through the talk half the audience is toppled from their chairs as the ship pitches to a new high. Beer flies in all directions, but no severe injuries are incurred on this occasion.

We are soon in our cosy little bunks but as the night progresses it is apparent that the storm is growing in intensity. In the darkness regular crashes echo around the cabin and we mentally check the whereabouts of our stowed breakables. Sleep seems next to impossible as we constantly adjust position to brace ourselves against the pitching ship. And if you don’t hold on you just roll from side-to-side within your timber box! 

Sunday 3rd November 

When the never-ending night is finally over we vacate our bunks to find a cabin floor strewn with belongings in jumble-sale fashion. Showering has changed from a clever balancing act to a serious injury hazard!

Something that struck me during the course of our voyage was the fact that the sea could change as markedly as the land in terms of colour, shape and character. No two days produced the same outlook, with differing light conditions and wind intensity constantly changing the maritime panorama from the ship. 

This-morning’s ocean is a grey, foreboding one. A deep, rolling swell stirs the steely blue water below a cold grey sky. We are already four hundred miles from Cape Town, but still seven hundred and sixty miles from the Prince Edward Islands. We have now crossed the Agulhas Current and are steaming through the large area of mixed water between the Agulhas and Return Agulhas Current, which forms the northern border of the Subtropical Front south of Africa. The gannets are long gone and we assume that we must be in a ‘real’ ocean now. Pteradroma petrels are much in evidence and appear perfectly suited to this environment. Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrels hurtle past the ship, then turn into the wind to soar high above the waves in a display of complete mastery of these savage conditions. A Grey Petrel, a true deep ocean species, passes by demonstrating its shearwater-like flight characteristics and grey upperparts to full advantage.

‘The wind sails the open sea steered by the albatross’. These are the words of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and anyone who has watched a great albatross effortlessly quarter the storm-churned Southern Ocean cannot fail to be moved by their poignancy. The great albatrosses differ from the mollymawks in their pale mantles and, most impressively in their gigantic wingspan; a Wandering Albatross can possess a wingspan approaching twelve feet. Our first Wanderer of the trip glides into view before breakfast, drawn towards the boat after it is spotted on the horizon many miles away. Great albatrosses are habitual ship followers. Their current habit is no doubt learnt from the lure of a possible free meal after a bout of trawler shadowing, but ancient mariners noted this trait centuries ago and one can only surmise that an element of curiosity also enters into the equation. With their often individually distinguishable plumage characteristics we soon find that the same bird will follow us for days on end; I find it amazing to wake up and see the same bird shadowing the boat, which was there the previous evening.

The sight of a Wandering Albatross gliding serenely through a storm-raged Southern Ocean has to be one of the most evocative images in the natural world. Tragically it is also one of the most seriously threatened as Wanderers, along with most of the other albatross species, plus dozens of other seabirds are now being driven towards extinction. The culprits are longline fishing boats, whose baited hooks drown three hundred thousand seabirds every year. 

Longline fishing boats unwind a line up to one hundred and thirty kilometres in length, carrying thousands of baited hooks. More than one billion hooks are used each year by the world’s longline fleets, which sail from dozens of nations. Albatrosses and other seabirds scavenging behind these boats try to grab the bait from the hooks as they sink and many birds are hooked, dragged underwater, and drown.

Legal loopholes allow a huge fleet of illegal pirate fishing boats to avoid international fisheries regulations and operate with total disregard for the number of seabirds they kill. Because of their very slow reproductive rates (Wandering Albatross, for example, can take up to twenty years to mature and then only produce one offspring every other year) albatrosses are particularly at risk. 

There are a number of simple measures, which trawlers can adopt and significantly reduce the number of seabirds being killed. Bird-scaring streamers, setting lines at night and weighting the line so that it sinks quickly have all met with success. Further research is ongoing and efforts are being made to police fishing quotas and practices. We can all help in a small way by ensuring that the fish that we eat is from a certified ‘seabird-friendly’ source. When dining out ensure that tuna or Patagonian Toothfish (also sold as Chilean Sea Bass, Antarctic Black Hake or Mero) is caught using ‘seabird friendly’ methods. 

Despite some inroads being made the problem of seabird mortality, or ‘bycatch’, remains are huge one. Some albatross species are in genuine danger of extinction as a direct result of Man’s greed. This is a totally unacceptable scenario and we must all do everything possible to save these magnificent creatures.

Meanwhile, back on the Agulhas, and we are all tucking into our breakfast porridge when a cry of Antarctic Prion causes a stampede to the door. The prion obliges and we are soon all gathered around the stern admiring this tiny grey, black and white seabird flitting over the wake. Prions resemble a cross between a storm petrel and a pteradroma, and some species are notoriously difficult to separate in the field. Our expert guides run the crucial features past us, however, and we are all happy to add this bird to the list as Antarctic Prion.

The prion excitement has scarcely abated when the next good bird causes a mass sprint across the helideck, this time for a stunning Sooty Albatross, gliding on characteristic long narrow wings and wedge-shaped tail. These are birds of the coldest waters and a sure sign that we are rapidly slipping into the lower latitudes. 

As the day progresses so the wind increases and waves heighten. The open helideck is vacated in favour of the adjoining hanger and a huddle of red-nosed faces peer out from below the raised shutters and over a stormy sea. By late afternoon the temperatures are dropping noticeably as we move into colder water. There is a corresponding increase in the numbers of prions and albatrosses and one of the last birds we see before dark is our first stunning White-headed Petrel. In true pteradroma style it soars high above the waves between swoops down to water level in a magnificent display of dynamic soaring.

Before we set sail seasickness had been an oft-discussed topic. Numerous different medications had been enlisted on advice from countless sources. The thought of being at sea for a full seventeen days with no respite from potential nausea had been a daunting and very scary prospect indeed. One of the biggest surprises of the trip is, therefore, the fact that virtually no one aboard the ship is visibly suffering, despite the ferocious weather. It’s amazing how rapidly you can acquire your ‘sea legs’ and it would seem that once they’re attached they could take all that the oceans can throw at them. Having said this, we did later learn that one of the crew, a newcomer to the ship, spent three days on an intravenous drip. Apparently he was so ill that he came close to being cast ashore on Marion Island, to wait six months for the next ship!

After dinner we retire to the bar and are treated to a laptop computer demonstration of prion identification. A couple of our party have state-of-the-art digital cameras and stunning full frame images of the day’s birds can be displayed in seconds. I suppose this is the way forward but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave my thirty-five millimetre transparencies just yet!
‘Plan B’ tackles bedtime on the severely pitching ship. The mattress is removed from the bunk and placed on the floor, perpendicular to the pitching action. It’s an overwhelming success and I’m snoring in no time.

Monday 4th November 

We awake in the ‘Roaring Forties’ with a serious storm roaring. Up on deck the outlook is dramatic. Visibility is down to around five hundred metres in the wind-whipped spray. As a consequence significantly fewer birds are visible, as they can’t see the ship from such great distances and home in to follow the wake. The waves are now so large that the ship literally climbs up one side of the wave and falls down the other; quite a feat for a hundred metre long craft! The speed is right down to six knots and we are informed that we have to keep the speed low so as to avoid the propellers leaving the water as we pass the peak of the waves. If the propellers emerge into fresh air they increase their revolutions so rapidly that they can shatter; not an ideal proposition in a hurricane force storm in the Southern Ocean!

The lower external decks are awash with seawater as waves break high on the Agulhas’s hull. The whole ship is pitching and yawing to huge angles and she seems to be creaking and groaning under the pressure of the relentlessly pounding waves. Add to this the constant banging of loose cargo and doors, plus a mass of rattling chains and it makes for quite an atmospheric cacophony. Remarkably none of the passengers is visibly seasick, though the violently rocking ship is a real hazard and one casualty results from a nasty fall down a steep set of iron stairs. 

The storm increases in intensity through the day and after lunch we take the opportunity to climb the seven storeys to the bridge. This is the operational nerve-centre of the ship and we are pleasantly surprised (after the undeniably shabby lower decks) to find it spotlessly clean and bristling with high-tech, computer driven communication and navigational aids. 

The view across the raging sea is awesome. Force ten winds, blowing at fifty-five to sixty knots, send huge waves crashing over the bows. Despite the height of our vantage point water inundates the windows and temporarily blinds the view. The wind whips white wisps of spray from the crests of huge rolling waves, while patches of turquoise, which are stirred up by massive breakers, periodically lighten the cold blue-grey sea. 

Pterodromas hurtle past dozens of feet above the crests, while White-chinned Petrels hug the peaks and troughs. The day’s new seabird comes in the shape of a giant adult Southern Royal Albatross, which takes to following the ship in the company of a couple of Wanderers. 

During the course of the day, and particularly in the bar after dinner, another big lesson in pelagic travel comes to the fore in many a conversation. We are all now aware that a ship’s progress is totally in the lap of the weather and that estimated times of arrival can be drastically revised dependant upon conditions. Thus, with the extremely strong headwinds that have been blowing for the best part of twenty-four hours, we are now half a day behind schedule for arrival at Prince Edward and Marion. Unless the storm abates soon we are going to be seriously short of time in the latter stages of the trip. The other big story is Dick Newell’s very close shave on the poopdeck (at the stern of the ship, below the helideck), when a huge wave knocked him off his feet and washed away his digital SLR camera and telephoto lens. And so ended the evening displays of laptop digital photography.

Now that we’ve found our ‘sea legs’ any prohibitions about having a skin-full of beer are lost and tales of the life and times of Ian Sinclair entertain us into the early hours. The big Irishman is a storyteller and entertainer second to none. He really is one of the personalities in the birding world and our nights of Castle Beer and Irish anecdotes are an inextricable element of the enjoyment of this unique trip.

Tuesday 5th November 

A different day, a different sea. This morning the ocean is much flatter and a steely grey, with starkly contrasting white breakers. Great albatrosses are constantly in view and prions skim the water’s surface all around. We are now in the range of the subtly different Salvin’s Prion and birds of this species are in constant view, darting over the sea almost touching the surface, hugging troughs and peaks, occasionally soaring at eye level. The new cold-water mollymawk is the Grey-headed Albatross. These are fantastic birds, with adults showing a dark grey hood and a black bill with bright yellow lines along outer edges of both mandibles. 

A Northern Royal Albatross completes our set of great albatrosses. Well, it completes the separable ones; a couple of examples of ‘Tristan Albatross’ are observed at either end of the trip, but this putative ‘species’ is all but impossible to separate away from breeding grounds and their credentials are left to individual consciences!

The weather is now in constantly changing mode. Sunshine is rapidly followed by snow, but extra thermals are deployed and the constant stream of good birds keeps minds off the cold. Blue Petrel is the next new species, resembling a large, well-marked prion. Our first Light-mantled Sooty Albatross highlights the afternoon watch, exhibiting a similar slender profile to its Sooty cousin. 

Cetaceans have been thin on the ground but the days viewing provides two Humpback Whales which fluke and blow close to the ship, though a female Orca makes just one, tantalisingly brief, breach of the surface.

The post dinner spotlighting session on the helideck produces nothing whatsoever as the moon is too bright to lure any seabirds to the light, though we do enjoy fine views of the Southern Cross. The day ends with a huge birthday cake for Sue Johns and the inevitable Castle Beers.

Wednesday 6th November 

A cold blue-grey sea greets us, and also a huge selection of seabirds. Literally hundreds of individuals are constantly in view, concentrated in the ship’s wake. Now Blue Petrels are almost matching prions in number and we marvel at the double figures of Wanderers following the ship. A Fairy Prion is a new addition to the list, being relatively easy to distinguish with pale head and broad black tail band.

The light is good, the wind has lessened and we seem to be making good progress again. Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses regularly glide past the stern, almost within touching distance, and pockets full of Fuji film are exposed. Stunningly beautiful and supremely majestic these birds, with powder-grey mantles and contrasting sooty grey heads, must be one of the ultimate pelagic species. At this range the white eyelids and delicate light blue line down the black bill complete the stunning image. With Sooties, Grey-headeds and Black-broweds all attending the boat it’s difficult to know where to focus next! 

Lunch is served at the regulatory 12.00 hrs and we file down to the galley where we are now becoming expert at holding a sliding plate and glass of water whilst still getting food to the mouth (though the sound of smashing crockery and some Afrikaans expletives is still not an entirely unfamiliar sound). The food is perfectly adequate, though Egon Roney may be able to add a little constructive criticism. Still, we are in the middle of the Southern Ocean so can’t be too fussy.

As the afternoon progresses the weather degenerates into a grotty, grey drizzling picture. Birding deteriorates accordingly and it seems like a good time to take a tour of the other vantagepoints of the ship. The ‘Monkey Island’ is an exposed viewing platform, which sits directly atop of the ship’s bridge. Apparently so-called because of it’s profusion of communication antennae, wires and cables, if offers a great high-level panoramic view of the ocean. It is the favoured haunt of the ship’s staunch cetacean watchers, but is very exposed and a hefty layer of thermals is essential.

Another great viewpoint when the sea is relatively flat is the bow of the ship. Here one can replicate scenes from ‘Titanic’ or stand diligently and watch for storm petrels. We stick it out for a couple of hours, pursuing the latter pastime, and are eventually rewarded with a great view of a very close Grey-backed Storm-Petrel. This is another species confined to cold southern waters, with a reputation of being particularly tricky to spot from ships, which it is known to avoid. As the name would suggest, this species has a grey back and upperparts, lacking the white rump of most of its congeners.

If one looks at a map of the world a number of obscure specks can be seen dotted about the vast blue expanse of the Southern Ocean, hundreds of miles from either the Antarctic landmass or the southernmost tips of the African or South American continents. Without exception these volcanic outposts of life are both incredibly inhospitable and stunningly beautiful. Another trait, which these Sub-Antarctic islands share, is an incredible wealth of wildlife, albeit influenced by the often-catastrophic activities of Man over many centuries.

Some are very well know some, such as The Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha, while others are virtually unheard-of. The Prince Edward Islands undoubtedly fall into the latter category, lying some 1770 kilometres south east of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The Prince Edward Islands actually consist of just two islands, Prince Edward and Marion; unless you’ve competed in a round-the-World yacht race you’re unlikely to have come across either!

The discovery of the islands makes for a quite an intriguing saga. In March 1663 a Dutch East Indiaman passed them en route for Java and named them Dena (now Marion) and Maerseveen. No landing was made and the discovery seems to have been forgotten. It was over a century later, in January 1772, before the next set of human eyes were cast on the islands and the re-discovery was made in ignorance of the first. This time it was a French frigate, actually on a voyage in search of ‘the great southern continent’, which came across the isles. Having tried to land on the islands for five days they abandoned the attempt and continued east. In a show of disgust, and disappointment that they had not found Antarctica, they named the islands Ile des Froides: The Frigid Islands.

Almost five years later, in December 1776, Captain James Cook arrived at the islands in the course of his third voyage of discovery. His charts did not show the names bestowed by the French so it was he who named them the Prince Edward Islands, in honour of the fourth son of King George III, the future father of Queen Victoria.

Through the 1800s and early 1900s the animal resources of the islands were exploited mercilessly. First the fur seals were slaughtered until trade in their skins was no longer viable as a single economic activity. By 1810 the sealers had turned to the Elephant Seals, whose blubber could be rendered for retrievable oil. By 1860 this resource, too, had become exhausted and the islands were left in relative peace.

After the Second World War South Africa became increasingly interested in the Prince Edward Islands, in terms of their strategic position for both defence and navigation, as wireless and weather forecasting technology rapidly developed. No claim to sovereignty of the islands had previously been made and therefore, in December 1947 and January 1948, South Africa landed parties on each island in turn and formally completed their annexation. Since that date a scientific station has been permanently manned on Marion, with biological research being undertaken on the Island’s animals, plants and ecosystems.

Late in the afternoon the dark shape of Marion Island finally emerges from the grey mist and gloom. It’s quite amazing to see some land after days on end amongst the waves and the remoteness of the setting adds to the atmosphere. Cold, steep volcanic rocks climb above huge white breakers as we steam closer, in the face of a rapidly developing gale. The dark rocks give way to rolling dark green slopes that stretch away into the low cloud.

A single, low shingle beach is visible and through the gloom it is just possible to discern a large gathering of King Penguins, fronted by the huge grey shapes of Southern Elephant Seals. We skirt the coastline to the landing site at Transvaal Cove, the location of the research base, where its flare-waving residents greet us. This excitement is quite understandable, as they haven’t seen a boat since May! We have one research student aboard, who is due to be dropped off at Marion, but the weather is far too rough to permit a landing and we head south in search of shelter.

As we navigate along the coastline King Penguins swim close to the boat and the endemic Crozet Shag is seen flying past, but the weather is foul and light poor. Large white blobs dotted evenly amongst the cliff-top grass are nesting Wandering Albatrosses and the smaller white blobs walking amongst the rocks are Lesser Sheathbills! The valley-sides of one particular cove are swathed in a mottled grey-and-white mass, which we are told is 10,000 nesting Macaroni Penguins, while the lower and more thinly distributed white dots are Rockhoppers. All very frustrating to say the least!

Eventually the light fades and we take shelter on the leeward side of the island. A glimpse at the guidebook to the Islands contains such quotes as ‘rain occurs on 308 days per year’, ‘gales (winds over 55 kilometres per hour) occur on 107 days per year’ and ‘calm conditions are rare’. Seems like it would be a little optimistic to hope for a nice sunny day!

Thursday 7th November 

The helideck is crowded by 04.00 hours and there is a huge air of anticipation as the sky begins to lighten. The gale that was howling around the ship last night has dropped dramatically in strength, but there is annoyingly persistent drizzle in the air. The sky lightens and birds begin to appear. The endemic Crozet Shags fly low over the boat and it is now apparent that they are very smart birds indeed. Black above and white below, they display a striking patch of yellow skin at the bill-base and a gorgeous royal blue eyering when seen at close range.

King Penguins materialise around the ship in small groups, drawn to us by their inquisitive nature. The water is so clear that they can be seen to ‘fly’ through the water, driven by stiff, outstretched flippers. When they surface they reveal their stunning black, white and orange markings and utter deep, far-carrying contact calls. It’s an amazing experience.

‘Orca!’ The cry causes panic on the helideck and a mass sprint to the port handrails. Initially the sea looks devoid of life, but then a glance down through clear water reveals the source of the excitement. Within two metres of the ship’s hull is the unmistakable black-and-white outline of a Killer Whale. It’s an awesome sight, and every detail can be clearly discerned as it drifts away from the boat. Picking up speed it breaches and blows, with huge panda-coloured head held clear of the water. Further out it joins a small pod of two or three more whales and their huge black fins break the surface, sail-like, in the calm waters of the bay.

The Captain skilfully repositions the ship and we concentrate our attention towards the shore and the huge penguin rookeries. Through a telescope the King Penguins, which pack the low shingle beaches, can be studied. They huddle shoulder-to-shoulder with roughly equal numbers of pristine black, white and yellow adults and large, brown, down-covered young. 

Huge Southern Elephant Seals lie amongst the boulders in the midst of the King Penguin rookery, with discrete areas of free ground being left around each gigantic grey mass by the astute penguins. On the grassy slopes immediately above the bays are small, loose colonies of Gentoo Penguins, easily distinguished by their white crown-flashes. The Rockhopper Penguins occupy the more inaccessible rocky slopes on the higher ground, which they reach by precariously hopping over jagged rocks and mounds of turf. The Rockhoppers appear rather bedraggled in the rain. Yellow crests are somewhat flattened, but the fact that they do not meet above the eye distinguishes them from the rather more robust Macaronis. The latter species generally nest in separate, sprawling colonies that are located elsewhere on the islands.

Lesser Sheathbills pace deliberately around the King Penguins and odd birds occasionally fly along the clifftops on short, rounded wings. These pure white birds, with contrasting black bare-parts, are restricted in distribution to just five small sub-Antarctic islands between the Cape of Good Hope and Australia and are hence one of the big target species of the trip. Relatively few human eyes have ever before been set on this bizarre scavenger of the island’s mammal and seabird colonies.

Kerguelan Terns share a similar range to the Lesser Sheathbills and are amongst the rarest tern species in the world. With dark grey underparts, black cap and white cheeks these smart birds resemble Whiskered Terns and share feeding habits with this species. We watch them hovering and dipping over the macrocystis kelp beds just offshore, in marsh tern type fashion. Apparently they also spend much time feeding over freshwater inland pools and meres.

Some way inland, dotted about Marion’s rolling grassy slopes, are nesting Wandering Albatrosses. Well-grown young are now present in the nests and the darker down of these birds is less easy to spot against the dark background. Wanderers only raise one chick every other year, hence their vulnerability to longline fishing mentioned earlier. Another problem faced by birds on Marion is rather more obscure: predation by mice. The House Mouse was probably introduced by shipwrecks and sealers’ expeditions in the early 1800s. They rapidly multiplied and soon reached such proportions that they plagued the early research teams. In 1949 a number of cats where introduced, which were believed to have been neutered. Sadly this proved not to be the case and cat numbers soon began to multiply. 

By 1975 more than two thousand cats had learnt that it was far easier to feed on burrowing petrels on the Island than to hunt mice at Marion base. Consequently these cats ate just under half a million seabirds in 1975 alone, sparking the implementation of a huge control programme. Introduced diseases, hunting, trapping and poisoning were all employed and by 1991 more than three thousand cats had been killed. No cats have been seen since this date and the programme has been hailed as one of the most successful eradication programmes ever. 

This still leaves the House Mouse problem, however. Mice have been blamed for altering the ecosystems and plant communities by eating the Marion Flightless Moth Caterpillars and are now thought to be guilty of attacking albatross chicks during the night. They bite into the stomachs of the helpless birds and are thought to be the cause of recently noted increases in casualties amongst fledgling birds.

Further evidence of Man’s adverse influence on the natural environment can be seen in the shape of the huge rusting three-legged iron cauldron, or tripot, on Tripot Beach. A tripot was used to boil down the fat from seal blubber and penguin flesh and the presence of this heirloom of a bygone age is testament to our inhumanity and wanton exploitation of the Planet’s resources. Apparently penguins would have once been herded up planks and into the pot to be boiled alive. The sight of this instrument of destruction now sitting amongst the bustling penguin rookery, with birds walking obliviously past, is particularly poignant. 

Back on the water, and tiny Common Diving-Petrels scoot over the surface before diving headlong below the waves. Their identification causes much controversy, but most observers are happy that they do exhibit a duskier underwing than the South Georgian Petrels seen yesterday. Furthermore, our resident seabird experts tell us that Common Diving-Petrels feed around the macrocystis kelp beds, whereas South Georgians are birds of the open sea. Anyway, I’m not proud. Tick!

Prince Edward Island is a couple of hours steaming time from Marion; so late in the morning we head off northeast to complete our tour. A few hot chocolates and a flurry of albatrosses later, Prince Edward Island emerges from the dirty grey mist. The scenery is more rugged and dramatic than Marion, with towering black volcanic cliffs rising vertically from the sea, their tops disappearing into the low cloud. Where the grey sea meets the dark rocks, the white plumes of crashing breakers contrast starkly with the black background. It makes for an incredibly atmospheric sight, and the Island appears to be a very dark and foreboding place.

The setting may appear uninviting, but a closer approach reveals that the Island and its surrounding waters are teeming with birdlife. As the ship is skilfully manoeuvred close in to RSA Point we are treated to our first decent views of a Macaroni Penguin colony. A steady stream of birds clamber up the steep rocky hillside to an area of flat, bare rock where a few hundred birds have set up their rookery. The Macaronis can be distinguished from the superficially similar Rockhoppers by their more luxuriant yellow plumes that meet above the bill, their deeper, redder bill and diagnostic fleshy pink gape.

More Southern Elephant Seals are dotted about the low rocky beaches whilst the higher grassy hillsides, above the beaches, are inhabited by the occasional Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal. These animals are much smaller and darker than the Elephants and show a pale yellowish face and chest.

We continue to follow the coastline and pass the famous Albatross Valley, which sports the highest densities of breeding Wandering Albatrosses in the world. The Wanderers are concentrated on the flat valley base, while high on the valley sides are vast numbers of mollymawks; Grey-headed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. Hundreds of storm-petrels feed above the turbulent waters, close inshore, and we are treated to brilliant views of Black-bellied and Grey-backed Storm-Petrels which patter their feet across the water’s surface close to the ship. A shout of ‘terns!’ sets heads spinning and we are just in time to watch three Antarctic Terns pass the boat and disappear out, over the misty sea.

Our route takes us past huge black rock stacks, which rise from the sea, like the wind-chiselled spires of a dark Gothic cathedral, their summits shrouded in thick grey mist. Huge breakers whip their bases with white foam and it makes a stunning backdrop to the soaring albatrosses and giant petrels that abound in the shadow of the Island.

After a brief attempt at ‘chumming’, when our buckets full of stinking sharks liver attracts only hordes of aggressive giant petrels, we set a course back to Marion Island. The crossing between the islands is spectacularly rough, with the Agulhas pitching to ridiculously steep angles and passengers gripping grimly to any suitable handholds around the helideck. Chairs and an occasional birder roll across the helihanger but we eventually reach the relative shelter of Marion with all passengers still accounted for!

Following the shoreline in a southwesterly direction we are able to study the Island’s fascinating geography in somewhat clearer weather conditions than during our early morning visit. Marion’s eastern coastline is a harsh volcanic landscape of steep black lava cliffs and dark green hillsides strewn with huge rounded boulders. Occasional red-tinted cinder cones give some symmetry to the outlook and tumbling white waterfalls, dropping to the cold sea below, periodically slice the cold greens and blacks.
Rounding a headland the amazing sight of the Kildelkey penguin rookery comes in to view. The name ‘Kildelkey’ comes from the last company to attempt to harvest the penguins and seals on a commercial basis that thankfully ceased, unsuccessful, in the 1930s. The vast colony is centred on the minimal shelter afforded by a shallow valley and contains the mind-boggling numbers of one hundred and fifty thousand pairs of King Penguins and three hundred thousand pairs of Macaronis.

The Kings occupy the lower slopes with a sharp demarcation to the ‘Mackies’, whose throngs stretch way up the valley-sides and over the higher ground. Many of the King Penguins again have well-grown brown, downy young, standing as tall as the parent birds. It is also apparent that the King’s social organisation requires less space between individual birds than the Mackies. The Kings huddle almost shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a vivid block of colour on the grey landscape while the more loosely spaced Mackies leave a visible ‘pecking zone’ between birds. The yellows and oranges of the King’s plumage create of warm glow over their enclave while the Mackies display colder black and white tones. This gives a stunning visual effect when the colony is viewed from a distance; the dividing line between the two species can be traced with the naked eye as it winds along the valley base. 

As the light fades Marion Island disappears from view. This will be our last sight of land until we return to the South African Cape. We are now heading south, towards the ice, and into uncharted territory. No one has made a pelagic birding trip into this part of the ocean at this time of year ever before. There is an air of anticipation about the boat and thoughts turn to icebergs and penguins.

Friday 8th November 

After just one night’s steaming south from the islands there is a dramatic decrease in the number of birds visible at sea. Early morning on the helideck reveals that the attendant wake-following White-chinned Petrels and albatrosses have all but disappeared. Blue Petrels have been replaced by prions, including a number of Fairies, and White-headed Petrel is now the common pteradroma. 

The weather is bright with a low swell and brisk, cold wind. Occasionally the sky blackens as squalls appear ahead. As these weird, linear storms approach the sea becomes turbulent and we experience huge waves and sheets of rain. This only lasts for a matter of minutes, however, then squalls pass and can be seen disappearing into the distance before the sun breaks through again. 

Southern Fulmars increase in number around the wake of the ship. They really are exquisite birds, with delicate pink bills and distinctive white wing flashes. A well-insulated afternoon bout of birding from the Monkey Island, at times in horizontal snow showers, finally produces some fine views of Kerguelen Petrels. This species had proven most elusive further north but, as with many other species, once we reach the appropriate sector of ocean they are relatively numerous. ‘Kergies’ have a particularly impressive and characteristic flight, swooping up in an arc to perform a long level glide high above the waves.

15.12 hours is a big note for the diary, being the precise time that the first iceberg is spotted. I have to admit that my idea of an iceberg had always been a lump of pointy white ice poking up out of the sea. Therefore it comes as quite a surprise when a vast chunk of the Antarctic ice shelf appears on the horizon. Far from being a piece of ice in the sea, this thing looks like the bloody Isle of Wight! Flat-topped and with huge vertical cliffs of ice rising on its flanks, it is visible from nearly twenty miles distance. Absolutely amazing, and hopefully a taste of things to come. The only disappointment is that my entry in the ‘when will we see the first iceberg?’ sweepstake is just fifteen minutes premature and I miss out on the winnings.

It’s been another great day and no-one suspects that progress has been too badly affected by the headwind. With this in mind it comes as a shock when Peter Ryan tells us, in the evening log call, that we are a full day behind schedule, which will mean a whole day less at the pack ice. We retire to bed in a rather disillusioned state.

Saturday 9th November 

Time for another layer of thermal underwear, I think. Overnight snow has left a two-inch layer covering the ship’s deck. It is now seriously cold and any bare skin is chilled to the point of pain in a matter of minutes. We all rapidly become experts in camera focusing with the aid of thick, padded mittens. 

The strong wind produces a huge swell and it is obvious that our progress south is being hindered further. Numbers of birds are generally low and species diversity minimal. It would be sacrilegious to describe the passage of time as tedious, in this once-in-a-lifetime environment, but there is a real air of despondency on board the ship. Every one knows that each hour lost to the storm is an hour less in the packice. We try to put it to the back of our minds but the real fact is that if the wind doesn’t abate soon we may not even reach the ice before we have to head north for The Cape.

After the briefest of daily log-calls we decide that the answer lies in drowning our sorrows in Castle Beer. A raucous evening in the bar culminates in a drunken game of ‘crush the can’. This involves balancing on your empty beer can, then crushing it with a deft thrust of the fingers. Not particularly easy when sober and on solid ground. When pissed and on a rolling boat nigh on impossible! MK refuses to be defeated and comes away with a self-inflicted ‘drinking injury’ resulting in serious loss of blood.

Sunday 10th November 

We venture outside to find light winds, relatively calm seas and gently falling snow. The snow means that visibility is low and few birds are to be seen. Kerguelan Petrels are still in evidence, however, and drift close past the ship allowing the subtleties of their grey and sliver plumage to be enjoyed in the flat light.

The panoramic view from the Monkey Island, with a virtually calm sea and steadily falling snowflakes, makes for a particularly evocative scene. There is a real feeling that we are steaming towards the very end of the World.

Late in the morning the sky clears and the sun beams through to a flat ocean. We are now making up for lost time, travelling south at over twelve Knots, and optimism again prevails on board. Kergies are all around the boat and adopt a totally different flight style to suit the prevailing calm conditions. In contrast to their familiar ‘goalpost shaped’ soaring flightpath they dart around on rapid wingbeats, in a manner likened to a Pipistrelle Bat! A few Slender-billed Prions begin to appear with their Antarctic cousins. Although superficially similar they can easily be picked out once you get your eye in, with their paler heads and more delicate build. 

There is growing anticipation now amongst the passengers as we are now well within the zone of the Southern Ocean where some of the real prize birds are likely to appear. Lunch is confined to a minimal period inside within the canteen. No one wants to be munching his or her fishcakes when a real biggey flies past!

The temperature is really starting to drop markedly as large icebergs continue to materialise on the horizon. These huge white shapes tower high above the cold blue sea, floating islands with shadows picking out the detail on their icy cliff faces. It is also apparent that the numbers of birds are decreasing as we move further south, until just Blue Petrels and Southern Fulmars follow the ship.

Cetacean watching from a moving boat is a tricky proposition. Field guides illustrate huge mammals with distinctive shapes and markings while an average encounter consists of a ‘blow’ of spray and, if one is lucky, a brief glimpse of a fin between rolling waves. We are therefore delighted when a pair of Fin Whales makes a number of relatively close blows before showing their distinctively dark backs and tiny, rear-mounted fin.

It’s mid-afternoon when the first of the big packice bird specialities makes an appearance. ‘Antarctic Petrel off the stern!’ In the most obliging fashion this superb bird spends the next half-hour cruising around the ship. Not dissimilar to an ice-loving Pintado, Antarctic Petrels are dark chocolate brown above, with contrasting white flight feathers and tail, each with a black spot at the tip. They inhabit the packice and iceberg zones, rarely venturing further north, and breed in the most inhospitable locations on the freezing cold Antarctic mainland. In the ship’s wake, at the same time, is the only white morph Southern Giant Petrel of the trip. This rare colour form is most regularly encountered at the southern limits of the species’ range and appears reminiscent of a Glaucous Gull at distance, though displays a number of distinct dark blotches on its breast.

The speciality birds are coming thick-and-fast now and it’s only a few minutes later that the first Chinstrap Penguins appear off the port bow. It is a truly wonderful sight to see penguins porpoising in the open ocean, repeatedly jumping clear of the water then disappearing below the waves as they propel themselves at great speed through the icy-cold sea. Chinstraps really must be the smartest penguins going, with their white faces and neat black ‘straps’ running down below the bill. Again, this species is totally restricted to the coldest icepack waters.

Everyone has donned their thickest thermals; breath comes as a frosty mist on the ice-cold air and every nose sports a dewdrop. There is now a constant relay running shuttles to the kitchen and cold hands grip thawing cuppas.

The final new bird of the day is the true epitome of the cold icy wastes of the southernmost latitudes and it is quite fitting that it keeps us waiting until the last. When a Snow Petrel does materialise it is greeted by a suitable array of expletives and awe-struck gasps from the assembled gallery. This perfectly proportioned pure-white seabird, with delicate black bill and tiny black eye, must surely be one of the most amazing creatures on Earth. It looks totally at one with this incredibly hostile environment and gives a dove-like impression as it flaps and glides gracefully around the ship, the now-grey sky emphasising its vivid white plumage.

We are still marvelling at our Snow Petrel when we realise that we are about to make a real close quarter visit to one of the huge icebergs which until now have been shapes on the horizon. It’s difficult to know where to look next as Chinstrap Penguins continue to pass by, but the rapidly approaching ice-island soon draws the telescopes and long lenses.

As we steam closer, the huge frozen floating cliff-face dwarfs the red hull of the Agulhas. Small dots concentrated in a ‘valley’ on the berg slowly turn into a group of twelve hundred Chinstrap Penguins who have found a temporary home on the ice. The penguins stand in loose groups, some on unfeasibly steep ice slopes, and seem unconcerned about the huge waves breaking just below their footholds. More birds are also porpoising right alongside the ship, showing their stunning face-patterns to full advantage, and breaking the otherwise silent setting with their grating calls.

Above us a two hundred-foot high wall of ice raises vertically from the dark blue sea. Layers of ‘strata’ are clearly visible on the ‘cliff face’, showing how this vast piece of the ice shelf has been built up from the accumulated snowfall of many centuries. Far from being simply white in colour, the berg displays a whole spectrum of blues that are set off to perfection by the dark water and grey clouds. Deep crevasses in the ice reveal the turquoises and aquamarines present in the heart of this truly awesome structure.

It really is difficult to put into words the true impression of our encounter with this monolithic marvel of the natural world. For me it was the certain highlight of the trip and maybe the most impressive image I have yet encountered. I will certainly keep forever the memory of a pure white Snow Petrel soaring along the summit of an ice cliff two hundred feet above our ship on the furthest edge of the Southern Ocean.

Dinner is consumed on a high, before a final stint on deck in the fading light and extreme cold. The first packice appears and the hull is soon crunching through the large lenses of ‘pancake ice’, which cover the sea. The area of periodic packice is starting to break up at this time of year and pancake ice is the result, with a crazy-paving effect of ice ‘pancakes’ and semi-frozen ‘slush’ between. The pancakes are up to five metres in diameter and half a metre thick, but the Agulhas makes short work of slicing a path through, leaving a trail of open, black water behind in our wake.

Snow Petrels pass the ship in small flocks, their white forms highlighted by a blackening horizon. As the sun sinks below the sea it casts a pink glow over a lone iceberg standing against the dark sky. It’s bitterly cold, breathtakingly beautiful and like nowhere else on the planet.

Monday 11th November 

Latitude can be a rather confusing concept. We’re at fifty-five degrees south and steaming through packice in temperatures well below zero. The amazing thing is we are only as far from the equator as Newcastle upon Tyne. Such is the wonder of the warming influence of our Gulf Stream and presence of the great landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere. 

One could also be excused for thinking that almost twenty-four hour daylight would prevail when down at packice latitudes; instead the length of a day is similar to that of a summer’s day in northern Britain. Thus we get a lie-in until 03.00 hours, when the alarm is set for a prompt 03.30 arrival on deck. No one wants to miss a minute of the action when privileged to be in this unique location.

At 03.30 the Sun is just starting to make it’s presence felt on the eastern horizon. A thin orange sliver appears, to slit the joint between grey sky and dark icy sea. It’s just light enough to see that a vast sheet of pancake ice stretches to the horizon in all directions. It’s an eerily silent world and there is not a breath of wind in the intensely cold air. 

As the light grows in intensity dark shapes on the slabs of ice take the forms of Chinstrap Penguins, standing in small huddles in defiance of the extreme temperatures. Other groups form small packs to chase prey in the occasional patch of unfrozen water. They are quite fearless of the ship and some come close to touching the hull.

We are now in the true domain of Snow Petrels and large groups tumble and wheel around the boat, like flocks of white doves, giving their shrill contact calls. It is hard to imagine a more foreign environment than this land of deeply frozen whites, greys and blues and there can be few other places in the world which still remain so untouched by the destructive influence of Man. We really could be travelling across another planet.

Despite the four layers of clothing on my bottom half and the seven on my top, breakfast still comes as a welcome chance to thaw out and fill up the fuel tanks. Its benefits are short-lived however. A cry of ‘Emperor’ echoes down the corridor and the resulting sight of fifty people trying to get through a door at once have Monty Python qualities. This though is no laughing matter. Emperor Penguin is the target bird of the entire trip, choosing to live in just about the most inaccessible region of the planet imaginable, and no one can afford to miss it.

Emperors share the accolades of being both the largest penguin species and the bird that endures the coldest conditions of any on Earth. The incredible breeding cycle of the Emperor Penguin is now well documented. Birds arrive at the breeding sites, on areas of fast ice, in April and May at which time the birds have accumulated huge amounts of fat and can weigh up to forty kilograms. After the single egg is laid it is incubated on the feet of the male alone, during which time he is forced to fast for his sixty-five day existence on the ice, before the egg hatches. During this period the temperatures can drop to minus sixty degrees Celsius and birds huddle in groups to survive these unbelievably hostile conditions. Males can lose forty-five percent of their body weight before the female, whose arrival is timed to coincide with the hatching of the chick, relieves them. The walk back to the open sea can be as far as one hundred and sixty kilometres, which means that the male may have spent over one hundred and thirty days without feeding. This truly remarkable life cycle is completed when the fast ice begins to break up during the Antarctic summer and the young birds fledge at around one hundred and fifty days old.

Although some birds, particularly fledglings, have been know to disperse well to the north on occasion, it is all but impossible to see Emperor Penguin away from the packice. All eyes are therefore on deck and scanning for our Emperor Penguin within seconds of its initial sighting. Emperors are awesome diving machines, being capable of spending twenty minutes under the water down to depths of five hundred metres, and it is therefore a great relief when the bird is relocated in a distant patch of open water. 

After some skilful ship manoeuvring, and also a little luck with the bird’s chosen surfacing spot, we all manage to get a good look at this unique bird. It is a huge creature, like a big buoyant black barrel. The large orangy-white neck patch is very distinctive, as is its thick and strongly decurved pale-striped black bill. Our Emperor spends some time dipping his head below the water to check out the local fishing possibilities before jumping into a prolonged dive from which he is never seen to resurface. Elation washes over the boat as we realise that we have been privileged to enjoy a sight witnessed by a very select few people in the World.

Crabeater Seal shares a similar packice based distribution with Emperor Penguin and we are delighted when a pair of these endearing animals is spotted on the ice and allows the ship to approach to within a matter of metres of their chosen resting spot. Crabeaters are large seals, reaching lengths in excess of two-and-a-half metres, and apparently are rarely seen other then in a hauled-up position on an iceflow. This strategy keeps them out of range of Leopard Seals and Orcas, though the latter species has been known to deliberately breach in an iceflow in order to slide an unfortunate seal to a cold and grisly end. Crabeaters have an almost exclusive diet of krill; they swim through shoals of this shrimp-like crustacean at night, open mouthed, sieving out the food through a complex and tightly interlocking set of incisor teeth.

Around mid morning the Sun breaks through the low cloud and the temperature climbs to almost pleasantly warm levels. Copious amounts of sun block are applied to counteract the effects of the hole in the Ozone Layer and polarising filters are screwed into place on cameras. From the monkey island the view is breathtaking, looking out across the uninterrupted sheeted of white crazy paving. The pancake ice raises and falls in a weird rhythmic action, driven by the gently undulating wave action below the surface.

As the ship slices through the huge chunks of frozen seawater some of the ice is turned to reveal a yellow-green staining below. This is in fact the alga, which is the driving force behind the prolifically productive ecosystem in this unique environment. The algae slowly grow over the winter months, on the underside of the ice. When the spring melt commences the algae blooms, releasing huge quantities of nutrient into the cold waters. This is in-turn consumed by the many species of krill, a small shrimp-like creature, which are said to be the most numerous species on the Planet. Krill occur in unimaginable numbers in the upper layers of the Antarctic seas and are the staple food source of many of the region’s fish, birds and mammals, thus being the essential building block in the entire foodchain. An occasional animal can be seen, as it is stranded on the ice cracked by the action of the ship, appearing like a big pink shrimp.

Cetaceans are surprisingly thin on the ground though Antarctic Minke Whales make an occasional, tantalisingly brief, appearance. Birds are still in evidence, however, and the next big scare comes when a shout of ‘Adelie Penguin’ rings from the bows. This is now the only true Antarctic penguin, which we need to complete the set, but in Emperor fashion it dives and brings about an iceflow-scanning frenzy on deck. The first bird gets clean away, but half an hour later our perseverance is rewarded and two more Adelies are located on an iceflow, this time allowing the boat to pull up right alongside. One is a young bird that lacks the distinctive black chin, but the other looks the full part and both are sporting a diagnostic broad white eyering. 

Adelies breed on ice-free rocky coasts on the Antarctic mainland and some of the most southerly Antarctic islands. Our pair of birds is particularly charismatic and waddles along, flippers comically outstretched, hopping from iceflow to iceflow. Occasionally they practice bouts of tobogganing, belly flat on ice and feet used as propulsion. Another totally unforgettable moment in this day of unforgettable moments. We have now seen every species of penguin possible on the trip, eight in all, and a figure totally without precedent on a trip of this duration. 

It’s early afternoon before the final addition to my personal ‘want list’ is realised. It takes the form of a huge Leopard Seal, again hauled out on an iceflow. It’s an unmistakable animal, measuring nearly four metres in length, with distinctive spotting along its flanks. A close approach allows us to appreciate its elongated, reptilian head, and bizarre fixed ‘smiling’ impression on its face. This surely is the definitive ‘crocodile smile’, however, as this fearsome beast shares with the Orca the top slot in the Antarctic foodchain. The Leopard Seal has a broad diet, which often includes young seals of other species and particularly penguins. When it tires of the clicking of cameras the seal slides off the ice and beneath the water, still with a broad fixed smile.

By mid-afternoon a light fall of snow has begun and reduced the visibility sufficiently to clear the decks of scanning binoculars. A pack of twenty-or-so Antarctic Petrels still trail the boat, picking off krill which has been churned to the surface by the ship’s propellers. An odd Snow Petrel accompanies them and the sight of these birds close behind the ship, in flurries of snow, makes for a remarkable image to end one of the most incredible days ever. We retire to the cabin, where a re-run of MK’s video of the day’s events makes viewing on par with a David Attenborough documentary; it really has been a day-in-a-lifetime. 

The birding may have been concluded for the day, but the ship’s crew has plans to finish off our excursion in the packice with a real bang. In spite of the snow and sub-zero temperatures a couple of half oil-drums and a pile of logs are transported to the helideck and before long a couple of braais (South African barbecues) are blazing away. Huge steaks sizzle and the beer and wine flows in celebration. It’s an excellent evening of drunken merriment, culminating in a huge snowball fight on the floodlit helideck that is now covered in two inches of fresh snow. With our ‘beer coats’ in place we don’t notice the cold during our antics, but are later told that the temperature at the time is minus twenty-five degrees Celsius! 

Tuesday 12th November 

A very subdued morning-after-the-night-before finds us back on the open sea. The night has been spent steaming north, away from the packice, and there is now a real anticlimactic feel about the ship. We have achieved all our goals and now we have six long days of sailing back to Cape Town, through seas that are likely to produce very few surprises. 
Today’s commoner birds include Kerguelan and Blue Petrels plus Wandering and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. We are making our way through the realm of the cold-water species again and the notebook entries for the next six days are likely to read as a mirror image of those made during the journey south.

The wind speed increases dramatically through the course of the morning and we soon find ourselves in the clutches of another Force 10 Gale. It is very apparent that the Southern Ocean in such a storm is not the place to be with a hangover. Some precautionary anti-seasickness pills are popped and extremely light meals, consumed well away from the pitching, claustrophobic galley, are the order of the day. The forward speed of the ship decreases correspondingly and we drop down to a meagre four knots. 

The afternoon is spent up on the bridge, enjoying another spectacularly stormy panorama. Ten metre high waves crash over the bows, as the Agulhas dives into vast troughs and rides over mountainous peaks. The First Mate enlightens us with nautical facts and tales, a particularly apt quote being ‘There are some big holes in this sea’!

In an evening celebration of Chris Lodge’s Birthday, the cake is washed down by a can of pop (still can’t face a beer) before an early retirement to the bunk. This is a bit of a waste of time, however, as the ship is pitching to record breaking angles making sleep all-but-impossible. The waves must be perpendicular to the ship’s hull and the rocking action is relentless. A lifejacket inserted under the mattress, to reduce the available rolling-space, is a futile gesture. A sleepless night is had by all.

Wednesday 13th November 

Another jumble sale scene adorns the cabin floor and we try on a number of pairs of jeans before finding our own. There is much less interest in birding on the deck, as it’s fairly unlikely that any new birds will appear. The less committed souls resort to reading and Scrabble playing below deck, though many a hardened seadog still sticks it out in the very fresh air.

Around 11.00 hours we move from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic and coincidentally the weather begins to improve. By early afternoon the sun is shining and the swell has decreased, which means that the diversion of a touch of seabird photography can be sought. A flotilla of six Wandering Albatrosses follows the wake, which together with Pintados, Southern Fulmars and Blue Petrels make for some fine photographic subjects. The hours and films fly past.

A radiotelephone call back to the U.K. is a novel experience. A link is made over the radio to Cape Town, whence a landline connection is made with the destination. Half the conversation is then spent getting used to the fact that you can only speak with the button depressed and hear the reply when the button is released. Very confusing!

This evening’s lecture is entitled ‘Extreme Birding’ and involves the recital of some very interesting accounts of the more life-threatening moments experienced during the travels of some of the passengers. After listening to Peter Kaestner’s account of his boat sinking in Piranha-infested waters I realise that I have had a fairly uneventful birding career!

Thursday 14th November 

A relatively calm sea and long spells of sunshine greet us on deck, our morning arrival time becoming increasingly less prompt. A large proportion of the day is spent on the poopdeck, camera-in-hand, with Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses passing at point-blank range. We’re now back in the land of Soft-plumaged, White-chinned and White-headed Petrels so there’s never a dull seabird moment and identification skills can be honed to perfection.
By early evening most have tired of their honing, however, so it is just a lucky five who are present on the helideck when a fantastic bonus Atlantic Petrel passes close by the ship. This large, dark pteradroma, with distinctive broad white belly-band, has been rated as only an outside chance on the trip and we can’t believe our luck. Atlantic Petrels breed only on the Tristan da Cunha Archipelago and Gough, putting us on the very limits of the species range at sea.

Naturally we are not at all smug when we break the news to our fellow passengers and smile our way through three courses of dinner! Despite some blatant post-dinner stringing on the helideck the lone Atlantic Petrel remains the prize of the lucky few and we are at liberty to maintain our conceited grins throughout the evening’s ‘pub quiz’.

Friday 15th November 

Feels a bit bumpy again. Upon carrying out the morning ritual of checking the ship’s navigational computer screen we find that we are running a forty-knot headwind and forward speed is down to just eight knots. Talk swings to a greatly delayed arrival in Cape Town. E.T.A. is put back to Monday. Gloom and doom!

Up on deck it is distinctly milder but a rough sea; combined with drizzle and poor visibility, result in a very poor showing of birds. Soft-plumaged Petrels predominate and given good views the two distinctive subspecies can be picked out. Until this point in the trip we have been watching birds of the dark dubia race, which breed in the Indian Ocean, but now they are interspersed with birds of the mollis race. The latter, which breed on the Tristan da Cunha Archipelago and Gough, show a paler head and mantle and a more obvious ‘W’ on the upperwing. According to our guru, Mr Sinclair, there are ample grounds for a future split into two full species.

The evening’s entertainment includes a very interesting discussion with Peter Ryan about his seabird research projects, which are due to benefit from the proceeds of this trip. Peter’s population monitoring, on various Sub-Antarctic islands, is highlighting population imbalance in albatross populations. Radio and satellite tracking of albatrosses, during their oceanic wanderings in the course of their non-breeding ‘year off’, have revealed that different sexes disperse to different areas of the southern oceans. Because deadly longline fishing is more prevalent in some areas than others, certain sexes of some species can suffer much higher morality rates than others. This has obvious effects on breeding success when the surviving birds return to their parent islands. In light of these facts one ultimate aim of the project is to encourage the establishment of Important Bird Areas in certain sectors of the ocean, where longline fishing can be intensively policed.

On a less serious note, further entertainment is offered by the haircutting services of Ricardo, one of ship's gay cabin crew. As Graham Finch finds out, to his horror, Ricardo only offers a single style. It’s a number-one-all-over, Lionel Blair Cut; i.e. ‘Lionel Blair doesn’t have his hair cut like that?’ ‘He does if he comes in here!’

Saturday 16th November 

A day of extremely rough seas and showers of wind-driven rain. With the wind behind us we’re now making good headway towards higher latitudes and the outside temperatures are much milder. Thermals are packed away for the last time and silly hats hidden deep in rucksacks. 

We witness a minor rush of Atlantic Petrels, allowing the remainder of the ship’s complement to add this very special bird to their lists. Albatrosses are still prevalent with Black-browed, Sooty, Atlantic Yellow-nosed and a putative adult male ‘Tristan’ all putting in an appearance. Great Shearwaters are back with us, as we cover ground visited in the first few days of the trip.

Now that the majority of the fresh water on board has been consumed we are lacking in ballast making the ship bob, like a cork, high in the water. At times the pitching of the ship reaches dramatic proportions. On one occasion the Agulhas’ deck registers an incredible fifty-six degrees from the horizontal, with the now-familiar accompaniment of crashes, bangs and expletives! A brief stint on the poopdeck, attempting to catch the anger of the huge seas, is abandoned after a rather scary soaking from a freak wave.

The evening brings the traditional end-of-trip-meal, when the chefs prove that they are not averse to whipping up a few culinary delights. The steak, with all the trimmings, is superb especially when washed down with some fine South African Pinotage. We enjoy a fine evening of food and drink with many firm friends made over the last couple of weeks.

Sunday 17th November 

Our final morning at sea finds us back in warm tropical air and steaming rapidly north on a flat-calm sea. Birding remains interesting to the very last; with a number of Leach’s Storm-Petrels accompanying a sizeable flock of Great-wingeds. Skuas are also in evidence this morning with a single Pomarine and a number of Long-taileds passing the ship.

The captain has his foot to the floor as we need to make Cape Town harbour before 18.00 hours, the last available slot for docking. If we miss this deadline we will have to anchor offshore for the night and miss valuable birding time in South Africa. With the latter activity in mind local knowledge of mainland bird sites is gleaned and sketch maps are drawn in the notebook to see us through our forthcoming frantic week in the Cape. It’s also time to settle the trip bar-tab. Quite a daunting prospect under normal circumstances, but at 25p per can of Castle Beer we find that we still have Rand to spare for at least a few nights under cover during our week on dry land!

Around mid-day land appears on the horizon and we are soon passing through a group of trawlers with their attendant seabird flocks. Black-browed and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses call to say farewell, and we log our last Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels for what is likely to prove to be a very long time. We even manage to pull out a trip-tick, in the form of Cory’s Shearwater, good numbers of which glide close by.

As we make our way up the Cape Peninsular we enjoy some of the best whale watching of the trip, as at least eight Humpbacks breach and fluke close to the ship. Two Common Dolphins add to the cetacean frenzy and a real surprise is a flock of around two thousand Sabine’s Gulls which feed around Cape Town’s main sewage outlet; a sign that this feature really must be doing wonders for the marine environment!

After what seems an age of skirting the spectacular Peninsular coastline we finally pass the Twelve Apostles and turn into the harbour, beneath a sunset-bathed Table Mountain. Even now there is time for a final Agulhas-based tick, a pair of African Black Oystercatchers, which feed on the quayside. 

The pilot boat comes alongside and with a gentle bump we hit the first solid ground for seventeen days. It really is a great relief to be back to dry land. It has been a totally mind-boggling trip, which lived up to all expectations, but seventeen days and 3224 Nautical Miles is time enough to be confined to a large tin bucket bobbing on the southern oceans. There is a bag-full of amazing birds to be seen on the mainland and we’re now champing-at-the-bit to get ashore. Immigration representatives soon board the ship but it takes forever to complete the paperwork. We utilise the time to say farewells and exchange addresses, before we are finally allowed off to the waiting taxi.

 

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